The Death Of Stalin (2017) takes an absurdist view of history. The events following the demise of the one time ruler of the Soviet Union are reenacted as a farce. Intuitively director Armando Iannucci approaches the material with a Preston Sturges kind of whimsy. The historical stakes within the narrative are high, but the focus on the manner and details of the petty squabbling amongst Stalin’s cabinet undermine any gravitas. Guilt, innocence, executions, massacres, etc. are all treated with the cavalier attitude one typically reserves for dinner parties.
The strength of the film is in its ensemble. The scenes are long, wordy and generally difficult to play tongue in cheek. But the cast rises to the occasion; particularly Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Jason Isaacs. Honestly there’s not a bad performance in The Death Of Stalin. It’s just that these three actors seem to be channeling something extra into their parts. It’s as if Buscemi has discovered Groucho for the very first time while Jason Isaacs has stumbled upon the ghost of Bud Abbott and struck up an intensely intimate association.
The tricky thing about The Death Of Stalin is that while it plays like a light hearted screwball comedy it’s actually a devastatingly honest reflection of every political machine. Stalinism is just an extreme example of such a system; all the better on which to hang the comedy in the film. There’s an inherent truth to the way that personal vendettas and opinions shape legislature. It’s not a coincidence that The Death Of Stalin was released a year into Donald Trump’s first term. The figures in Stalin’s regime could just as easily be the former president and his psychotic lackeys.